“Competency-based learning” (CBL) is one of the newest buzz-phrases showing up on education blogs and in many legislative changes in education policy. New Hampshire, for example, just changed its high school curriculum to competency-based learning. But what is competency-based education? According to one blogger,
“Competency-based education is fundamentally different from traditional higher education as we know it, rather than credentialing a student based upon ‘seat time’ or credit hour [duration of course] and assessment, the student is credentialed based upon demonstration of the knowledge and/or skills required to meet an established skill set (competency).”
I’m confused by this definition, because I teach in a traditional institution of higher education and it doesn’t matter how many hours students spend in “seat time”- if they don’t demonstrate competency in the course material though various kinds of assignments, they don’t pass the course. I also find it a bit insulting to describe this new form of pedagogy as “competency-based,” because it implies that traditional colleges have been churning out incompetents for hundreds of years, when that clearly isn’t the case. This definition, then, is unsatisfactory.
Another description of CBL by Dr. Robert Mendenhall makes more sense:
“The most important characteristic of competency-based education is that it measures learning rather than time. Students progress by demonstrating their competence, which means they prove that they have mastered the knowledge and skills (called competencies) required for a particular course, regardless of how long it takes. While more traditional models can and often do measure competency, they are time-based — courses last about four months, and students may advance only after they have put in the seat time. This is true even if they could have completed the coursework and passed the final exam in half the time. So, while most colleges and universities hold time requirements constant and let learning vary, competency-based learning allows us to hold learning constant and let time vary.”
This definition is more complete. Competency-based learning allows students to progress at their own rate, which will benefit not only those students who struggle with material, but those who sometimes feel burdened by courses that are too easy or don’t allow them to maximize their abilities. Online learning, which relies extensively on independent work by students, is a great forum for CBL, because it is already designed to allow students to progress and participate at individual rates.
Current examples of CBL
Western Governors University offers an online competency-based program that is particularly geared toward professional learning:
“Each degree program is developed by a council of experts in the field who define ‘competencies’ students need to possess to graduate. These competencies form the curriculum. This combination of expertise in both industry knowledge and academics guarantees your degree will be relevant in your chosen field.”
This will be incredibly useful to students interested in moving quickly into a career, or transitioning from one career to another. Similarly, students who are working full-time and trying to complete additional training or a college degree can work around their schedules and progress at the pace that best suits their learning needs.
Where I teach, the Math department has created a CBL option for students in need of remedial coursework before they can matriculate into college-level courses. Under-prepared students have long presented a problem at community colleges, and there is a great division among educators on how best to handle this, with some advocating the elimination of any remedial coursework. But that means that many under-prepared students may enter academic programs with significant deficiencies that prevent them from passing standard college courses, wasting both their time and their money.
This new program is designed to meet these needs by allowing students to work through modules at their own pace. Instead of enrolling in lengthy full-semester courses, if they complete their remedial coursework in just a few weeks, they can move into the college-level modules on their own, essentially mastering the remedial needs as well as their first introductory course in a shorter time frame. It will save those students time, money, and a lot of demoralizing frustration.
Concerns about CBL
As useful as CBL can be for many students, I do have some significant concerns about it. As explained by two educators of the Florida Virtual School, CBL
“…has its origins in the business world. High school graduates who decide to become a barber, for example, would need specialized training in cutting hair. They would take an assessment to verify competency before receiving a license to cut hair. In order to maintain global standing, industry and education leaders teamed up to create a description of elements for 21st century outcomes. These elements would identify those skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary for our future work force to be competent in the 21st century market, much like a competency exam that a plumber, electrician, mechanic, or other trained and skilled professional would need in order to practice their profession competently.”
Ah, now I get it. CBL is designed to meet the needs of the professional and vocational training, because the business world is famous for being innovative and emphasizing efficiency. CBL will definitely produce highly skilled workers, in their individual fields of endeavor. That seems like a perfect pedagogical match for a trade school.
Unfortunately, vocational training is not the only job of a college, which is designed to foster the intellectual growth of students in innumerable ways so that they have a broad base of knowledge and skills that will keep them in good stead no matter what career they chose (and here I feel the need to note that maybe more mastery of college writing would have prevented the subject-verb disagreement so clearly evident in the second sentence of the above quote.) Not everyone goes to college on a straight career path, and some are interested in a broader intellectual experience. I wonder how useful CBL will be for them.
I have two other concerns:
- What are we going to do with whole generations of students used to “personalized learning” when they go out into the working world to discover that the world is rarely geared to their unique needs? These students are going to be in a world of pain when they get fired because they think they’re going to get all kinds of extra chances if they fail the first time. Let’s face it: no business is going to spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours to train an employee who cannot master necessary skills. This begs the question: should schools be expected to employ CBL if businesses won’t? What about the potentially huge amounts of time and money it will take for some students to master material? How will this be paid for and managed?
- Not all students and not all courses may be a good fit for CBL. Some students do not learn well in isolation or independently, and flourish with group interaction, when listening to and asking questions of a scholar-expert. In other words, skills are not the only things gained in college. For those for whom college is more an intellectual endeavor and less a business plan, CBL may feel isolating or unfulfilling.
For online students, though, CBL may be the way to go. Instead of enrolling in a timed course, with specific due dates and limits, they can take advantage of the technology of online education to practice their skills until they master them. This can create a wealth of new opportunities for students everywhere-and isn’t that supposed to be one of the benefits of technology in the first place?